Bosna! (1994): Docu about Bloodhsed in Sarajevo

Cannes Film Fest 1994 (Certain Regard)–Bosna! the powerful docu about the bloodshed in Sarajevo, has the distinction of being the only documentary in the two main series at Cannes Festival.

Emotionally stirring footage, some never been before, contributes to the authenticity and impact of docu that, to its credit, never claims or attempts to present a balanced view. Timeliness and global attention to the conflict, which is still unresolved, ensures showings on TV, cable and perhaps even theatrical distribution in major markets of the Western world.

Bosna! is not the only docu about the region this year; another docu, Sarajevo-Man, God, the Monster, made by local filmmakers, is shown in the Directors Fortnight. The only thing similar to the two works is the goal of their filmmakers to make the Western world realize the extent of atrocities in Sarajevo–and plea for taking immediate action to terminate them.

The film is divided into five segments, which loosely follow a chronological order, from April 4, l992, when the war began, to the present. On closer examination, however, this formal structure is rather deceptive, as there’s a lot of overlap among the parts, which is a problem. No matter how a chapter begins, invariably the reportage–and imagery–switches to the brutal destruction of Sarajevo’s Bosnians by the fanatic Serbian aggressors.

Three clear issues emerge out of this docu. First, the systematic annihilation Bosnia’s civilian community, its schools, churches, shopping centers, and historical sites. Authentic footage of bombing and killing civilians and their homes is shown–some carnage was shot while it was happening. The second theme is the long-silence of the Western world, particularly the U.S. and even the U.N. Docu chronicles the visit of French President Francois Mitterand to Sarajevo in June l992 and his future meetings with Bosnian leaders, who are also interviewed.

The staunch determination of Bosnians to defend their country, even as their families and friends continue to be massacred, is the third, most consistent motif. In fact, each section dwells on the Bosnians’ moral strength, showing how their makeshift militia consists of innocent men (many of them youngsters), who are using primitive weapons like guns against the far-better equipped Serbs.

Some, though not sufficient, info is offered about the historical origins and political context of the conflict, but in its ideology and P.O.V., Bosna! is unabashedly subjective. The narration, which frames most of the film, taints the viewers’ perception by using such expressions as: “Fascism has more imagination than history,” or “Europe died in Sarajevo” (the very last sentence). This lingo is no doubt influenced by the status of co-director and co-scenarist Levy, one of France’s most respected intellectual-philosophers and political commentators.

Docu is at its best when using primary sources and first-hand interviews. The cruelest evidence is provided by a Serbian soldier, who confesses to the camera in the most matter-of-fact manner how he slit the throat of a Bosnian “like a pig,” and raped seven girls, two of whom he later killed.

Accusatory charges are made against the Bush administration (and by implication Clinton, who’s not mentioned). Specifically, the discourse that Bush chose to deal with the clash (“let the Red Cross visit the camps”) and the censorship that prevailed within the State Department concerning repeated messages about the concentration and death camps built by the Serbs–analogy is drawn to Hitler and the Holocaust.

One significant issue, of which Levy and his team may not be aware, is the gap between their insistence on categorizing the Bosnians as victims and the latter’s resilient defiance of this label. A female intellectual says she continues to lead normal life, even wear make-up every day, because for her the real victims are the Serbs.

Tech credits and footage quality are good, which is an achievement considering the difficulty–and risk–of gaining entry into the region; in some occasions, the camera crew is just a few yards away from the battlefield. Lacking analytic depth and perspective that will benefit from some detachment, Bosna! may not be the definitive docu about the war-torn region, but for the moment, it’s a most forceful visual statement on the current affairs in ex-Yugoslavia.

A Les Films Du Lendemain production (Sales: MKL). Co-directed by Bernard-Henri Levy and Alain Ferrari. Screenplay, Levy and Gilles Hertzog. Camera (color), Pierre Boffety; editor, Yann Kassile, Frederic Lossignol; music, Denis Barbier. Reviewed at the Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 15, 1994.

Running time: 119 min.
Narrated by Levy.